Montage of the logos of Meta, Nvidia, Microsoft, Alphabet, Tesla, Apple and Amazon
The Magnificent Seven are trading at 27 times 12-month forward forecast earnings, while everything else is cheap or in line with average, one analyst noted © FT montage

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Investors are pushing back against the dominance of the “Magnificent Seven” by increasingly looking for alternatives that downplay the power of the US tech elite as concerns grow of a possible bubble.

Funds that equal weight the S&P 500 index — buying the same amount of every stock irrespective of its size — saw record inflows last year, even though this approach hit investors in the pocket as the tech titans entrenched their ascendancy.

The largest 10 companies in the S&P 500 index accounted for 32.8 per cent of the $42tn benchmark at the end of November — up from 25.5 per cent at the start of the year and the highest weighting since the early 1970s — before slipping a fraction to 32.1 per cent at the end of 2023, according to data from S&P Dow Jones Indices.

This extreme concentration was driven by the continued rise of the Magnificent Seven of Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Meta, Microsoft, Nvidia and Tesla, which added $5.4tn to their market capitalisation last year — equal to the combined size of the eurozone’s four largest economies (Germany, France, Italy and Spain), according to Vincent Deluard, global macro strategist at StoneX, a broker.

Some investors are growing wary of the septet’s supremacy, however. The Invesco S&P 500 Equal Weight ETF (RSP) sucked in $12.9bn, equivalent to 39.7 per cent of its assets at the start of the year, according to data from VettaFi, a consultancy. It recently passed $50bn for the first time, having held $15bn at the end of 2020.

Line chart of Weighting of the 10 largest companies in the S&P 500 (%) showing Decagon crazy

While traditional market capitalisation-weighted ETFs attracted more in absolute terms, their flows were lower in relative terms. The $483bn SPDR S&P 500 ETF Trust (SPY) had inflows equivalent to 14.9 per cent of its starting assets, the $397bn iShares Core S&P 500 ETF (IVV) 13.2 per cent and the $367bn Vanguard S&P 500 ETF (VOO) 16.4 per cent, according to VettaFi.

The approach was also in vogue in Europe, with the €5.3bn Xtrackers S&P 500 Equal Weight Ucits ETF (XDEW) enjoying record inflows last year — even though the equal-weighted index underperformed the S&P 500 itself by 12.4 percentage points in 2023.

“The degree of concentration is so historically extreme that it makes sense to mechanistically reintroduce diversification back into a portfolio,” said Dan Suzuki, deputy chief investment officer at investment manager Richard Bernstein Advisors.

He said concentration on a global scale was “unprecedented”, with the US share of the MSCI All-Country World Index having risen from about 40 per cent in 2010 to 62.6 per cent now, a period during which the Magnificent Seven’s share of the S&P 500 has jumped.

“We think this run has gone so far that it has become a bubble,” Suzuki added, drawing parallels with the decade-long underperformance of US equity markets in the wake of the Nifty Fifty-driven bull market of the early 1970s and the “lost decade” that followed the bursting of the dotcom bubble in 2000.

Bryan Armour, director of passive strategies research, North America at Morningstar expressed similar concerns. “I think a lot of people are wary of bubbles because of what happened in 2022 [when technology stocks fell sharply] after a strong 2020 and 2021,” he said.

“Equal weighting is a good way to keep the full broad market in your portfolio but tilt everything towards the small companies so you are not overweight the Nvidias, the Microsofts, the Teslas etc,” Armour explained.

Bar chart of Average annualised performance, by decile of S&P 500, 2003-2022 (%) showing Big companies have underperformed the minnows

“What you are capturing [with an equal weighted approach] is a much more diversified exposure,” said Suzuki.

Nick Kalivas, head of factor and core equity product strategy at Invesco ETFs, cited two additional reasons for RSP’s strong inflows.

One is that the S&P 500 has become more “growthy”. “If you look at the overlap with the Nasdaq 100, it’s up to the 45 per cent area. That is up from the 20s 10 years ago,” while the overlap with the S&P 500 Growth index is 68 per cent, Kalivas said.

The other is valuations, with the equal-weighted version of the S&P trading at a 20 per cent discount to the cap-weighted version, he added, when the two benchmarks have historically sported similar valuations. 

Suzuki believed valuations were key with the Magnificent Seven trading at a punchy 27 times 12-month forward forecast earnings, while everything else “is between extremely cheap or roughly in line with average”, with the S&P at 20 times, the MSCI ACWI at 17 times, small caps 15 times and the rest of the world outside the US just 13 times.

Kalivas pointed to the potential for the equal-weighted variant to outperform over the cycle almost irrespective of the starting point.

Since its inception in 2003, the equal-weighted index has beaten its parent benchmark by 0.9 per cent on an annualised basis, with $100 becoming $995, rather than $841, according to S&P, despite last year’s undershoot.

Line chart of Cumulative performance, rebased showing Equal weight has outperformed since inception

Kalivas believed this was due to the EW version benefiting from the small size effect, as well as a value tilt, with RSP selling winners and buying losers every quarter. Small size and value are regarded by aficionados of “smart beta” as factors that boost returns over the long run.

Not everyone is convinced, though. Armour argued that over the cycle “it makes sense to stick to the market cap-weighted index”, which benefits from lower turnover and therefore costs.

Mark Northway, investment manager at Sparrows Capital, argued that flows into equal-weighted vehicles were primarily being driven by the decisions of active managers who use ETFs to build portfolios.

“New money, certainly where it has an [active] manager sitting on top of it, is thinking ‘if I get into the US what am I going to be criticised for? I am going to be criticised for going into the Magnificent Seven at the valuations they are trading at’,” Northway said.

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